Do The Work Wednesdays

Do The Work WednesdaysWriting Wednesdays

Three Act Structure

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 13, 2011

Last week’s post, this week’s and next’s all come from Do The Work, our new book that comes out, on amazon.com only, a week from today. The e-version is available for free right now, though it won’t go “live” till pub day.

The cover of "Do The Work"—from a Van Gogh charcoal sketch.

At that time, a hardback and an audio version will go on sale, along with a collectible. By the way, you don’t need an e-reader to download an e-book; it’ll work on your iPad, your Mac or PC, your Android. Here’s a link to free apps that make this work.

But enough salesmanship. Let’s get down to today’s post:

I was talking last week about the Foolscap Method of getting a project started. The idea is to beat Resistance by forcing yourself to boil the whole shooting match down to one page—a sheet of yellow foolscap, a cocktail napkin, the back of an envelope.

Our project is what we want to get down. But how do we do it?

Here’s a trick that screenwriters use:

Three-act structure.

Break your dream down into three parts. Act One, Act Two, Act Three. Beginning, middle, end. Setup, story, punch line.

Three-act structure works for a play, a romantic seduction, the 1st Marine Division marching up to Baghdad. It’s the architecture for a WWE wrestling match, a Frank Gehry concert hall or an infomercial.

Here’s Moby Dick in three acts:

1. Ahab sets out after the whale.

2. Ahab chases the whale to the ends of the earth.

3. Ahab and the whale duke it out to the death.

Act One is the hook. “A priest, a rabbi and a gerbil walk into a bar … ” The purpose of the first act is to engage the audience. The greatest Act One ever is a roller coaster. Up, up, up and then … over the falls! You’re hooked.

Two other aspects of a great beginning: it must be unique and it must make a promise. A great fishing lure is a shiny, eye-catching object that makes the prey think, “Ah, a delicious meal!”

Here’s the Vietnam Memorial in three acts:

1. Visitor approaches site, which she realizes as she comes closer is below the surface of the ground, arrayed in a “V” and extending from a shallow end to a deep end.

2. Entering, the visitor sees a wall with the names of the fallen in chronological order of the dates of the deaths.

3. Visitor descends to view the wall, which has no barrier to impede her from touching the names of the memorialized or from leaving tokens of love or honor at the base of the wall.

Act Two is deepening complications. This is the meat of the project. Billy Wilder said, “In Act One, get your hero up a tree; Act Two, set the tree on fire; Act Three, get the hero down from the tree.”

The first movement of a symphony establishes the musical theme. The middle movements exhaust variations on the theme. Our middle passage—whether it’s a novel, a startup or a philanthropic venture—plays out the promise of the beginning to the point of excruciation. Think of making love. Think of a great meal. Think of middle age.

Act Three is the payoff. The release of tension. The climax. The resolution of the dilemma.

In the third act we learn if the defendant will be hanged or go free. Will Janie and Joey get married? Do the good guys win or lose?

For some reason, the human mind loves items that come in threes. That’s the key to laying out our structure.

On your single sheet of foolscap, write this:

1.

2.

3.

Now fill it in.

To drive us all crazy, let’s add one more requirement for Act One (this is the killer): it must contain, embedded within it, the resolution of the dilemma it poses. But that’s enough torture for this week.

Next week we’ll take this Foolscap Model a step further.

Posted in Do The Work Wednesdays, Writing Wednesdays

20 Responses to “Three Act Structure”

  1. April 13, 2011 at 7:18 am

    Steven, great news about your different options for Do The Work. Enjoyed reading War of Art with the special offer you did a few months ago. Have added new one to Kindle already.

    I could apply the three-act structure to my little life right now too:

    Act 1: realise what I’ve been doing for the last few years has been the wrong path, start creatively destroying things to get back to where I should be…

    Act 2: open bank statements and see the tree burning around me…

    Act 3: will have to wait and see; Act 2 has just started, will take a while…

  2. April 13, 2011 at 7:27 am

    Lots of frustrations trying to get this to download. I download the app, but Amazon doesn’t recognize that I have it, so can’t do anything. Even though I clicked into the link through the app I downloaded on the Amazon site. Free is a good price, but not worth this.

    • April 13, 2011 at 12:02 pm

      Ken, I downloaded Kindle to Mac. A few hiccups with Amazon too… but I had to go to my Applications folder and click on the Kindle App and made sure to install it. Then Amazon recognized it with my email and password typed in… hope this helps.
      Janet

      • April 13, 2011 at 3:41 pm

        I will give that a try, thanks.

      • April 13, 2011 at 7:25 pm

        Janet, I downloaded the Kindle for Mac too. Then when I chose the button to preorder with one click, it wanted my VISA. Did that happen to you too? I thought it is free.

        • April 14, 2011 at 2:34 am

          It wants your CC details, and sends you an invoice after each Kindle purchase, but for $0,00 if the item is free. I was a bit worried about this too but it seems to work fine. I guess they just use it for order tracking.

  3. April 13, 2011 at 7:27 am

    Good post. Forgot that part.

  4. April 13, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Ken,

    Sounds like you’re in Act Two with your download.

    “Apparent defeat” always comes before the breakthrough.

    Do The Work. Yoda is offering his wisdom to you for free.

    Chris

  5. Steve Lovelace
    April 13, 2011 at 9:00 am

    I’m very fascinated by this idea that the Act I should contain the solution for Act III. This seems like the hardest part to me, the part that you can’t really teach.

    I’m looking forward to reading more next week.

    Steve

  6. Vaughn Roycroft
    April 13, 2011 at 9:16 am

    My early work fell into three acts without my planning on it. My WIP was the first where I preplanned three parts, and it’s been an amazing benefit, even for a pantser like me.

    Thanks for the free book! Can’t wait.

  7. Nicoline
    April 13, 2011 at 9:25 am

    I love the idea of foolscap and the three acts, but I’m not sure I can get the solution for act 3 into act 1.

    • April 13, 2011 at 10:33 pm

      You always already know act 3 beacause in act 1 YOU decide the 1 of usually 2 outcomes .. will they end up together, you say yes or no, do the bad guys win, you always say yes or no ..

      1. Visitor approaches site, which she realizes as she comes closer is below the surface of the ground, arrayed in a “V” and extending from a shallow end to a deep end.

      Will she or will she NOT be able to do what she came for … Act 3 YES, she can see that that … just enter …

  8. April 13, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Super crystalization of making sense of the work we do and often get stuck in due to the negative inertia caused by a lack of clarity and clear sense making.

    As an organizational story guy I place a foot in two worlds. The world of explicit structure, and implicit emergence. The world of explicit structure involves hanging scafolding to allow the individual and collective energies and abilities in the organization to cover the blank canvas of the unknown into results. The world of the implicit (a favorite hang out for all great stories)is more about complexity and emergence. Clean beginnings, middles, and ends of tradition story making at this level of story magnification are not as apparent.

    I created two short conversation videos on just these topics. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts:

    About Beginning/Middle/Ends of Stories:
    http://www.vimeo.com/11369444

    About Organizational Clarity:
    http://www.vimeo.com/12353245

    Here also a one page simple chart comparing traditional forms of organizational communication with story-based ones:
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/9656489/Comparison-Traditional-Communications-StoryBased-Terrence-Gargiulo

    Best of luck and much success with your new book. Thank you for sharing the nuances of your craft.

    Warmly,
    Terrence Gargiulo
    WEB: makingstories.net
    BLOG: makingstories-storymatters.blogspot.com/
    TWITTER: twitter.com/​makingstories
    PHONE: 415-948-8087

  9. April 13, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    Very nice … as in life
    Act I on four legs
    Act II on two legs
    Act III on three legs

    Key: Crawl, walk, use cane ..

    I do so enjoy your Pragmatist/Realist approach, even the unlettered can understand …

    Thank you so much.

  10. marianne
    April 13, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    spring, summer, fall, act 1,2,3, winter let the feild rest. very organic process.

    • April 15, 2011 at 7:22 am

      Yes! Interesting perspective. There is uncommon power in the rule of three (http://wp.me/PxZAY-cZ) when framing messages, presentations, and arguments.

      But yes, in laying out plans it makes just as much sense. Stabilizes everything, like a tripod.

      Good stuff, as always.

  11. skip
    April 14, 2011 at 5:24 am

    how does one ‘3-act structure’ chris nolen’s “momento” ?!?

  12. April 14, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    Sorry to be dim, but I’m new to Kindle etc – on the Amazon page for DO THE WORK which is the correct format for the free e-book??

  13. April 16, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    They Holy — and not so Holy– Trinity!